Ostensibly, this is a documentary about the life of Karen Dalton, a nearly unknown folk singer who influenced a generation of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Dino Valenti. On a deeper level, I feel, it is about director Emmanuelle Antille’s desire to understand better her subject and the urge to create art. Filmed on a cross-country trek across American and told from firsthand accounts by people who knew her and/or were influenced by her work.
The subject of the piece, Karen Dalton, is portrayed as someone who didn’t seek fame but was more interested in just making music. This could be seen as an early example of the Residents’ “Theory of Obscurity,” where the art is more important than the person making it. It is clear from the get-go that there is a tremendous amount of respect for the subject matter — almost a religious type of love. Emmanuelle Antille seems less interested in telling Karen’s story than exploring the idea of Karen.
“… a nearly unknown folk singer who influenced a generation of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Dino Valenti.”
As described by her friends and acolytes, Karen becomes a mythic figure of boundless love, indescribable talent, and hopeless tragedy. Reminiscent of Citizen Kane in this way. Through the anecdotes, we get an incomplete picture of Miss Dalton, but it is those blank spots that make her so compelling.
Beautifully shot, almost every frame is just a postcard of the beauty of rural America: a picturesque desert landscape, craggy mountains, and impossibly green forests. We are shown a perpetual summer of lazy afternoons, where the gauzy memory of past glories can take on epic proportions.
Interlaced in the story of A Bright Light, and just under the surface is a deeper discussion into the nature of art. In particular who is art for? A Bright Light asks us if art is it for the viewer or the artist? Miss Dalton, according to the stories, was the happiest singing in her little cabin in the hills. It was only when she tried to make a living as a singer that she began to suffer the tragedy of heartbreak and addiction.
“…we get an incomplete picture of Miss Dalton, but it is those blank spots that make her so compelling.”
As I stated earlier there is also a discussion on the urge to create. Where does inspiration come from and how it gets harnessed? This extends to the documentarian herself. We get footage of Antille and her crew discussing how best to proceed, which leads to one of my minor problems.
A Bright Light, at times, veers into not just unexpected but bizarre territory. There is a shot of the boom operator collecting ambient sound in very creepy lighting while horror movie music plays. There is a shot of the crew in masks discussing time travel to get a better handle on the subject. There is a costume montage as they act out one of Miss Dalton’s poems. I accept that it might go over my head because of something lacking in me. I accept I might not have the intellectual or aesthetic capability to fully grasp what she was going for. But in the end, I just didn’t get it.
A Bright Light is a beautiful love note to a forgotten artist, a tragic story of wasted potential, and an exploration into the primal urge to create.
A Bright Light (2019) Directed by Emmanuelle Antille.
7 out of 10